My darkness has been filled with the light of intelligence, and behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness – Helen Keller.
As the nation strives towards its aspiration of becoming a high-income nation, we need to ask ourselves if we are guilty of being socially blind. Much has been said about being an inclusive society. How fare this goal?
Business Circle speaks to Moses Choo, executive director of the National Council for the Blind, Malaysia (NCBM) on the challenges facing our blind, currently numbered about 50,000, as per the Department of Social Welfare’s register.
The biggest stumbling block to an inclusive society for the blind is not the blind themselves but the people around them who have not accepted that blindness is a situation, says Choo, who himself is blind, with a little sight. “Unless we are accepted into the society, it is going to be difficult to move forward.”
ICT manager at the Malaysian Association of the Blind Silatul Rahim highlights awareness as the biggest hurdle – it is not that people do not want to do the right thing, they probably do not know how.
Choo laments that many people regard being blind as being next to useless and that no form of training can help them be productive human beings. Many still think that blindness may have been a result of doing something bad, or that one’s parents have not behaved.
“They do not understand that the blind can be trained. We use computers, smartphones and, most of all, we may be blind but our brains are still working perfectly!” exclaims Choo.
Some even believe that the blind brings bad luck. “Yet, on the other hand, there are those that believe blind people have lucky fingers and ask blind persons to pick numbers so that they can try their luck with empat ekor [4D lottery],” he adds wryly.
“Some banks do not even allow blind persons to open an individual account, denying us of ATM and credit cards. There are also insurance companies that place higher charges just because we are blind, thinking that blind people will have a higher chance of meeting with an accident,” he shares.
Thankfully, the sentiments towards the blind have improved over the years. Silatul notes that there has been a lot of progress in the past few years. The society is now “more involved, more inclusive”, he exclaims.
Silatul says the installation of tactile blocks along the roads to help blind users is an indication that the government respects the need of the blind to live with dignity and move independently. He believes the government is trying its best – that it is keen to assist people with disabilities (PWD) but may not know how to due to lack of awareness.
Sense of pity still prevalent
Given the numerous challenges, it has been difficult to place blind people in schools and employment, and allow them to be part of society, says Choo.
While sentiments towards the blind have improved, the sense of pity is still prevalent. “They may donate, they may help, but they may not want to have a blind person in their midst. It is still difficult to get jobs for the blind,” shares Choo.
Companies tend to believe that employing the blind or PWDs will lead to higher costs and lower profits. But the key in obtaining the best out of an employee, able-bodied or otherwise, is the same – whether the person has the adequate talents/skills to do the job.
There are jobs that do not require sight. Star Publications (M) Bhd, for example, has long had several blind telephone operators. Din, who has since retired after decades of service, was probably everyone’s favourite telephone operator as he was always cheerful and helpful. He was arguably among the best in the world of telephone operators.
Choo strongly believes that being blind is no excuse to not perform. Choo himself started off as a telephone operator and rose up the ranks to Assistant Administrative Manager at Coopers & Lybrand and was even awarded the Most Dedicated Manager award.
NCBM is the umbrella body of five major voluntary organisations serving the blind, namely Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB), Society of the Blind in Malaysia (SBM), St. Nicholas’ Home, Sabah Society for the Blind, and Sarawak Society for the Blind. They, as well as NCBM, are active in organising workshops for the blind. NCBM recently brought all blind students from Sabah, Sarawak, Johor and Alor Setar to Penang and put them through three days of motivation, preparing them for career thinking and planning.
NCBM is also currently working and planning with the Ministry of Health on accepting blind masseurs into the traditional and complementary medicine (TCM) practice.
Malaysia has specified a 1% employment quota for people with disabilities in government and private sectors under the legislation of the Service Circular Letter No. 3/2008 (for government sector) and Code of Practice of Employment for People with Disabilities in Private Sector 2001 (for private sector). Implementation of affirmative action in the government sector began as far back as 1988. Unfortunately, up till today, only the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development has met that 1% target.
As for allocations for the blind, “look at Budget 2015, I personally feel that the fishermen get a better deal than the disabled. Without having to go out to sea, they will get RM300 in allowances. As for the disabled, only those who earn below RM1,200 are able to apply [for support] and we need to be earning something before we can even apply. Even then, most who apply will not get it as only a handful will be given,” he says.
NCBM has also been lobbying for the Persons with Disability Act 2008 to be amended to better serve the disabled; but to no avail.
Technology making life easier
Technology can make life easier for the blind but only for those who can afford it. Malaysia does not produce any blind-related technology and has to import them from countries such as the UK or US, at a premium.
Choo is technologically savvy himself. He was an early adopter of the Internet, back when Jaring, the nation’s first internet service provider, only had about 2,000 subscribers. Choo was also responsible for bringing technology into Coopers & Lybrand in the early 1990s.
Globally, it is believed that less than 5% of the information out there, including reading and learning material, is made accessible to the blind. This will include all kinds of information, either on the internet or print.
Choo reckons that the figure is below 1% in multi-lingual Malaysia. “Our challenge is bigger as we have several languages. The fact that the younger generation is less fluent in English makes the situation worse.
Note that not all blind persons are totally blind. There are many degrees of blindness. WHO defines low vision as visual acuity of less than 20/60 (6/18), but equal to or better than 20/200 (6/60), or corresponding visual field loss to less than 20 degrees, in the better eye with best possible correction. Blindness is defined as visual acuity of less than 20/400 (6/120), or corresponding visual field loss to less than 10 degrees, in the better eye with best possible correction. A 20/200 (6/60) vision means the individual would have to stand 20 feet (6.1 m) from an object to see it, with corrective lenses, with the same degree of clarity as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet (61 m).